‘What the leader says, goes’

Just consider how utterly dependent the Labour Party has now become on the identity of Joseph Muscat, to even have an identity of its own

What guarantee does the Labour Party have that Muscat’s replacement will replicate his successes? None at all, as far as I can see
What guarantee does the Labour Party have that Muscat’s replacement will replicate his successes? None at all, as far as I can see

‘Leadership’: such an easy word to say... but so goddamn difficult to define. What does it even mean, anyway? I suppose it’s a question we must sooner or later confront, seeing as at least one of the two major parties in this country is in the process of choosing a new leader. And as can easily be attested by the last six or seven times the PN or PL faced the same dilemma... the decision is arguably more important than the electoral choice of a new government.

Certainly, its effects on the party last longer than an electoral victory or defeat. Political parties can always survive a spell in Opposition. What can prove seriously detrimental to their survival chances, however – sometimes keeping them in opposition for decades on the trot – is the lack of any persuasive long-term direction or vision.  

Strangely, however, neither of those two parties seems to even be aware of this fact. Only this can explain why both – in their own, admittedly different ways – have doggedly refused to ever evolve beyond the primitive political paradigm whereby ‘the leader’ is the only source of anything resembling a political identity. 

Let’s take Labour as an example for a change. Not, perhaps, because the lack of serious leadership is more keenly felt in that party at the moment – it isn’t, quite frankly, and that accounts for the main difference between their recent political fortunes. But Labour still somehow illustrates this particular aspect of Maltese politics better than the PN. 

At face value, Joseph Muscat may well be every inch the ‘leader’ the PL was yearning for after its two-decade spell in the wilderness. He has so far delivered exactly the sort of dream transformation many people – Labour, Nationalist, whatever – actually thought was impossible until only a few years ago. He has turned a permanent lame-duck party into a seemingly unstoppable election-winning machine. 

But just look for a moment at how much of that party he had to refashion in his own image and likeness, for that to actually work. Just consider how utterly dependent the Labour Party has now become on the identity of Joseph Muscat, to even have an identity of its own.

This week, for instance, someone posted a throwback to the Labour Party’s ‘Partnership l-Ahjar Ghazla’ days: a photo of a PL clubhouse somewhere, with a massive poster above the door saying, ‘If we join the EU, we will be forced to introduce abortion and marriages between people of the same sex.”

Fast forward only 13 or so years, and while abortion remains nowhere to be seen or even contemplated... well, well, what do you know? The same Labour Party is now pushing a bill through parliament to legalise ‘marriage between people of the same sex’– in other words, the same ‘social evil’ the Labour Party had warned us against when campaigning against the EU... not in the 19th century, mind you, but just the day before yesterday.

That, alone, is a drastic political transformation by any country’s standards. Yet neither Muscat nor Labour has so far even been challenged on a U-turn of such colossal proportions. There hasn’t been so much as a squeak from the Opposition – and there are reasons for this, too: the PN has allowed itself to be browbeaten into a corner on civil liberty issues, and is facing internal dissent as a result. Anything it now says can and will be used against it... either by Labour, or (more seriously) by its own MPs.

What I find interesting, however, is that no corresponding internal dissent seems to be troubling Joseph Muscat right now. And this is truly remarkable, given the extent to which that party’s stand on gay rights has changed in recent years.

Where are all the Labour supporters who agreed with the previous stance... the one expressed on that poster, which equated ‘gay marriage’ with everything that’s wrong with Western civilisation today? Nationalists who fall into that category are speaking up. Why has the Labour Party’s conservative wing suddenly gone so quiet (considering it was yelling at the top of its voice until very recently)?

There is only one answer that I can see. They have ‘followed their leader’, and simply redesigned their own opinions to match Muscat’s. And they seem to have undergone this remarkable metamorphosis without any visible pain or trauma. No resignations, no threats to abstain or vote against the bill. The Labour Party has simply swung from one extreme to the other at the flick of a switch... and all the people who were comfortable with the conservative phase (when, incidentally, such views were considered ‘useful’ to bash the EU with) are now equally comfortable voicing the clean opposite views.

Have their own opinions changed in the meantime? Or did they never even have any to begin with? 

Personally, I reckon they never did. To paraphrase my favourite line from ‘Babe 2: Pig in the City’... ‘What the leader says, goes’. I think it really is just a case of Joseph Muscat telling them what to think, and when to think it... and the rest of the party replying: “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.” 

Naturally, this phenomenon is by no means limited to the gay marriage issue. The EU question as a whole was eventually settled for Labour in exactly the same way. Alfred Sant told the Labour Party that EU membership would be catastrophic for Malta: so the entire party – media, members, structures, supporters and all – made whatever adjustments were necessary to believe it. Then along came Joseph Muscat saying the opposite – and I mean literally the opposite: it would now be catastrophic to leave – and hey presto! Readjustments are made again, and once more the entire party gravitates body and soul in the new chosen direction.

And you can take it as far back as you like. Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and Alfred Sant did not have comparable (or even compatible) views on how to manage the Maltese economy. The former maintained the Old Labour paradigm he inherited from Mintoff – the latter consciously remodelled Labour along the lines of Bill Clinton in the USA. 

The two worldviews couldn’t have been further apart...  to the extent that Mintoff even had to come out of retirement to bring down his own government – but at every point in these multiple transformations, ‘the leader’ of the moment simply imposed his own ideological stamp on the party, and everyone else followed suit. (Well, ‘everyone’ apart from Mintoff on that one occasion. And he was branded a ‘traitor’.)

So coming back to the original question: is this what we really understand by ‘leadership’? Because it looks a lot more like a colossal leadership failure to me. And yes, sure, the strategy might even be paying off for Labour right now... but for how long? As long as Muscat remains in charge? By his own estimate, that can’t be more than a few more years. He has already announced he will step down before the next election.

So what happens then? Will the entire party once again metamorphose before our eyes, in accordance with the identity of its new chosen head honcho? Will it suddenly contradict all the things Muscat says today... just as Muscat has contradicted so many of his predecessors’ past policies?

Hate to bring this up now (I was doing well so far in avoiding any direct mention of the PN) but that is exactly how the Nationalists got themselves into the mess they are now in. And the same thing happened to Labour twice in the past: first after Mintoff, then after Alfred Sant. So by adhering to that ‘follow the leader’ strategy, all the Labour Party is really doing is sowing the seeds for its own inevitable future crisis. Indeed, the seedlings may already have begun to germinate. 

With so much attention focused on the PN leadership election, it is easy to overlook the fact that Labour, too, is in the process of electing a new deputy leadership. And while it seems like a run-of-the-mill election to replace Louis Grech... it is also overshadowed by Muscat’s imminent retirement.

It is, of course, way too early to make predictions. But you can rest assured that aspirants will already be quietly eyeing their chances and making their own preparations. The way things are shaping up, the next PL leader could quite easily be someone very different from Muscat – in both character and outlook – and if that person somehow lacks the ‘je ne sais quoi’ necessary to hammer his or her own stamp onto the party... 

... well, that’s when the biggest weakness in the Labour Party’s leadership model will once again become visible. It is a party that can only ever be as strong and successful as the person at the helm. Its direction and vision can only ever be a reflection (often a poor one at that) of one person’s hard-headedness. And from this perspective, its current electoral strength is only an illusion of strength. It is Joseph Muscat – and not the PL, which (to be brutally honest) may as well not even exist without him – who enjoys the trust of so many thousands of voters. 

Once he goes off into the sunset, there is a fair chance that all other bets will suddenly be off, and we will be back at the drawing board where it all started. After all, what guarantee does the Labour Party have that Muscat’s replacement will replicate his successes? None at all, as far as I can see. 

All this points in a direction. We don’t really have a clear sense of ‘leadership’ at all in this country. Real ‘leadership’ would involve building permanent structures and policy directions that can actually outlive the leader who built them. Personally, I have yet to see this happen in either Labour or Nationalist parties... and I’ve been looking for more than 20 years.